Thursday, February 19, 2009

Government of the People?

Coming from the prospective of a citizen of United States, with our two party system of government, the system here in Israel, where there are 36 different parties, representing every conceivable special interest group, seems very hard to understand. While our system is not perfect, once the votes are counted, we at least know who won, and who will lead. Israeli citizens also vote for their government but there vote seems to be more of a recommendation than a real vote. In the recent national election Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima party edged out Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party that is right of center by one vote. Avigdor Lieberman and his radical Yisrael Beiteinu party, who openly hates Palestinians, came in third. Even though she won the most votes, Livni did not win anything, and the people of Israel have no idea who will end up governing them. In order to govern, the leading party must have a majority of the seats in the Knesset (Israel’s senate) and must build a coalition of parties to get that majority. While she won the most votes she did not win a majority of the seats. She did not even necessarily win the right to try to build a coalition among the 36 parties.

As it turns out, the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, who is the Head of State, a figure head role elected by the members of the Knesset, is the one and only person who has the power to decide who will get the chance to form the new government. It is likely that he will not choose Tzipi Livni even though she got the most votes. He has the autonomy to select anyone who he thinks has the highest probability to build a majority coalition. At the end of the day the decision as to who runs the country is based on negotiation among the parties and each one of them has their price. Before the election last week the negotiations between all the different parties began with the minority parties outlining their demands in order to join a coalition. Those negotiations are going on now at a furious rate and will continue over the next two months before the Israeli people will have any idea who will lead their country. Netanyahu has cozied up to Lieberman and other right wing parties like the ultra-orthodox Shaas party, giving him the upper hand in the coalition building negotiations. These radical elements that support settlement building and sustained oppression of Palestinians will surely get whatever they want out of the deal no matter who ends up being Prime Minister of Israel.

It is this distorted system of government that allows a minority in Israel that is in favor of sustaining the occupation over the Palestinians and continuing to steal their land, to control public policy, and money. In an editorial in today’s Haaretz, Israel’s leading newspaper, titled Looser Takes All, Nehemia Shtrasler provides a good prospective on how this system of electing a government prevents peace:

“David Ben-Gurion copied our system of government from the Zionist Congress. The problem is that the Zionist Congress was a body whose goal was talking, and a government is a body whose goal is implementing. By the time Ben-Gurion realized this in the early 1950’s and sought to change the system, he couldn’t muster a majority. The small parties who were members of the coalition, refused. They understood that in Israel there is a special system in which the loser takes all. It’s a system in which the small parties get everything they want because the party in power has to pay the small parties anything they ask for, otherwise there is no coalition and no government.’

“That’s how every Israeli government becomes a government of paralysis, with the minority ruling the majority – the opposite of representative democracy. For many years the extreme-right parties dictated policy on the settlements. They always managed to get budgets passed for the settlements by threatening to break up the coalition”

“This is a major distortion of the will of the majority because many surveys in recent years show that the public is ready for a significant territorial compromise in exchange for peace with the Palestinians, but the minority controls the majority.”

“Therefore, if we want the majority to rule and establish a stable government that lasts……we must change the system of government.”

The next time someone tells you that we (the taxpayers of the United States) need to support Israel because it is the only democracy in the Middle East, consider the fact that a principal tenet of democracy is the concept of majority rule which is clearly not the case in Israel.

60 Minutes - Is Peace Out of Reach?